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Lessons Learned on Blending Work-Based Learning With Dual Enrollment in Tennessee

February 5, 2024

Lauren Miller Program Manager
Lee Domeika Director
Anna O'Connor Senior Director
Practices & Centers

With the number of dual enrollment students enrolled at community colleges nearly doubling in a decade, a growing hunger for greater student exposure to work-based learning (WBL), the appetite and opportunity to break down the traditional barriers between the worlds of secondary, postsecondary, and work has never been higher—if you want to familiarize yourself with some of JFF’s thinking on this new blended frontier, read our framework “The Big Blur.” [i] In Tennessee, JFF has partnered with the Tennessee Department of Education to begin piloting such an approach with the TN SySTEM initiative, which is funded by an Education Innovation and Research grant through the U.S. Department of Education, to combine dual enrollment and WBL for high school students.

Currently, there are 13 public schools funded through the TN SySTEM grant that are active in testing an innovative model that allows high school students to simultaneously gain college course credits as well as experience WBL through a “Dual Enrollment Work-Based Course” (DE-WBC). In practice, it might look something like this:

Maria, a high school junior enrolled in CSC-120 Intro to Computer Science, goes to a college campus on Mondays and Wednesdays and works at the high school IT help desk on Fridays. In class, she’s learning about basic programming skills, and at work she helps with a project cleaning up and configuring new pages on the school IT website in her time, allowing her to apply her learning and get the mentorship support of a work supervisor. Because both experiences contribute to her learning, the work supervisor grades Maria’s time at the IT desk, reviewing what she’s learning and executing well in addition to general workplace skills, and shares them with her CSC-120 instructor to inform her overall class grade.

DE-WBCs are intentionally co-designed and co-taught by both a classroom instructor (either a high school teacher with adjunct status at a partner college or a college professor) and one or more employer partners. They provide an opportunity for students who are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to weave on-the-job learning with the traditional classroom, providing contextual experience and exposure to real careers.

The work has undoubtedly been challenging, with important barriers to consider when approaching a similar model, but we at JFF have already begun to find important lessons for states who might be looking to break down and blur similar barriers that separate the worlds of secondary, postsecondary, and the workforce, whether they be in policy or practice.

Lesson 1: Flexible systems and policies allow for course innovation

Case highlight: In Tennessee, schools report on and are held accountable for student participation in both dual enrollment courses and WBL opportunities, but currently courses can only be classified in one category. Although DE-WBCs do incorporate WBL elements, schools lean toward coding them as dual enrollment courses to qualify for state dual enrollment funds. Currently, there are no grant funds available for students enrolled in WBL courses, and students do not receive recognition for the work performed in DE-WBLs on their high school transcript. This is a missed opportunity for schools to count courses that meet multiple performance measures and provide students with an efficient range of opportunity.

To create a successful DE-WBC, state and local policies need to allow for the meaningful counting and crediting of experiences that blend traditional college coursework and WBL. This also requires a system aware of and prepared for such models when it comes to curriculum development and approval. In the TN SySTEM grant, JFF is continuing conversations with our school partners and the Tennessee Department of Education regarding the benefits and importance of having a course code that encompasses both dual enrollment and WBL.

  • Advocate for course codes that can both count for work-based and college credit, riding on state momentum for greater work-based exposure and attainment of college credit in high school. This may include creating new funding formulas or incentives that properly award schools for offering such courses, without double-dipping on existing incentives for DE-WBCs or WBL and creating an undue burden on state budgets.
  • Standardize the model and raise awareness for DE-WBCs by educating state and college accreditation boards about what these courses entail so that standard models (hours in classroom versus workplace, grading models, etc.) can be adopted, and approval streamlined.


Lesson 2: Shared commitment across partners provide for greater student experience

Case highlight: Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT) Shelbyville partners with three of our high school grantees, allowing for a more efficient, cohort-based approach to course delivery and management. TCAT Shelbyville offers instructors for DE-WBCs at various locations to ensure proximity and accessibility for students at multiple high schools in the area. They make one DE-WBC available to students at multiple high schools in order to serve rural schools that might not normally be able to provide enough students to meet thresholds to run a course. This allows partner high schools the flexibility to utilize their own local employer partners for the DE-WBC work component or to partner with one of TCAT’s existing employer partners, ensuring that students have a variety of options in their local communities for career exposure and networking with employers.

Innovation in isolation does not work for DE-WBCs. When all parties are committed to the model and keep students at the forefront, administration runs more smoothly, and students will likely experience better outcomes. TN SySTEM grantees have seen strong engagement from employer partners in DE-WBC design and implementation, whether through in-school models (like supporting an IT help desk) or through external job sites. However, some partnerships with postsecondary institutions have encountered barriers via inflexible course regulations and policies, such as arduous syllabus approval processes, resulting in some high school grantees switching to more flexible postsecondary partners to ensure DE-WBC success. As a result, we have learned that all participating DE-WBCs will need to be flexible, particularly as it relates to course instruction and the course syllabus. Additionally, dual enrollment instructors at the postsecondary level will need to communicate and plan with the employer instructor, not only on course objectives and learning outcomes but on the overall comprehensive grade.

  • Communicate shared value and roles early for the employer partner who may or may not be new to providing work-based experiences for students. This provides clarity in their expectations: how partners are expected to show up for students as educators and how the students will be able to show up for partners as workers and learners, leading to more understanding and a focused experience. In the best-case scenario for students, some of which are highlighted above, this results in paid student-worker experiences—a crucial commitment from the school or employer and a huge benefit and incentive to students.
  • Establish contracts and memorandums of understanding early to establish a shared sense of trust and accountability. By nature, DE-WBCs are a multi-partner model that require careful negotiation to ensure that all parties are aware of their various roles and duties and where they end. Creating systems early avoids “not my job” scenarios that might create hiccups in the student experience, while also creating a model that can be applied in the future should schools look to scale DE-WBCs.


Lesson 3: Adapting the DE-WBC course model can meet local needs

Case highlight: Alcoa High School is partnering with TCAT to run a Help Desk 101 course. In order to better accommodate the students’ schedules, TCAT has permitted a high school teacher to run the course, and they will be providing him with the curriculum and professional development opportunities. To navigate transportation and scheduling barriers, students are working at the school help desk during free blocks in their schedules.

Despite the real policy barriers grantees are wrestling with in Tennessee, we’ve witnessed schools innovate to meet the aspirations of the DE-WBC experience within the current system, providing hope and inspiration for alternative paths to success in creating a blended work-based/dual enrollment experience. These are especially important lessons for those interested in testing these models who may need to build more local evidence before advocating for policy or curriculum change or standardization of multi-partner contracting. It’s also important for those who are inspired by portions of the model and are looking for more lightweight ways to incorporate similar strategies into their programs.

  • Schools can consider in-house employment to avoid recruiting and retaining an outside employer partner. Not all schools will be able to recruit an external local employer partner, whether it be due to geography, composition of local industries and their alignment to academic pathways, or the capacity of employers to take on the necessary number of students for program success. In these cases, the school may consider if it has the capacity and appropriate roles within its organization to provide a work-based experience in-house. For TN SySTEM or other STEM based programs, working at a school IT or help desk, for example, can provide excellent experience while providing value back to the school and eliminating the often-difficult puzzle of worksite transportation. It’s important to note, however, that this is only a suitable substitute for WBL when the experience is aligned to experiences that are typical of work outside the school environment (for example, an IT desk where the function is like any office-based IT setting) and not an academically focused project-based learning experience.
  • Schools can train and recruit teachers who hold adjunct appointments at a partner college to simplify the postsecondary connection. Schools that train and retain teachers who can serve as in-house adjunct college faculty, approved for teaching dual enrollment courses, can help to simplify the multi-party nature of a DE-WBC. The benefits of in-house adjunct faculty are manifold, including: an elimination of the need for transportation to a college campus, more control for the school over the delivery and scheduling of the class and a greater sensitivity to the specific developmental and learning needs of a high school student.


Seeing Through the Blur

The TN SySTEM grant provides an opportunity to witness the potential of a blurred line between the worlds of secondary, postsecondary, and work. The efficiency of the experience provides not only work-based experience and college-level coursework for high school students, but also an exciting opportunity for accelerating coursework while giving students—all students—a foot in the door of the working world, beyond the unpaid internships that are only accessible to students with time and money to spare. Incorporating these experiences into the school day provides opportunity to students who may otherwise have after-school responsibilities, such as being a caregiver or working career-unaligned jobs to help with family bills. Not to mention, internships can be inconsistent, with research showing roughly one in four students saying they had a less than satisfactory experience at their internship; models such as this propose a system where employers better understand what expectations need to be shared with an education partner to create a beneficial learning experience for a student worker.[ii]

The work of the TN SySTEM initiative is not over, and there will be many lessons to come as well as new challenges to meet, but in the meantime, in Tennessee, the age-old debate of “real world,” on-the-job learning versus the theory and foundations of a classroom is being put to the test, and the answer is—why not both?

[i] Audrey Williams June, “Enrollment at Community Colleges is Stabilizing. The Growing Presence of High School Students is Why.,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, published March 30, 2023, accessed August 23, 2023,; Nicole Torpey-Saboe, Elaine W. Leigh, Dave Clayton, “The Power of Work-Based Learning,” Strada, published March 16, 2022, accessed August 23, 2023,; Nancy Hoffman, Joel Vargas, Kyle Hartung, Lexi Barrett, Erica Cuevas, Felicia Sullivan, Joanna Mawhinney, Avni Nahar, “The Big Blur: An Argument for Erasing the Boundaries Between High School, College, and Careers —and Creating One New System That Works for Everyone,” Jobs for the Future,

[ii] Matthew T. Hora, Jared Colston, Zhidong Chen, Alexandra Pasqualone, “National Survey of College Internships (NSCI) 2021 Report,” University of Wisconsin Madison Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions, published 2021, accessed August 23, 2023.

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